Damien and fourth-year coach Mark Paredes, ranked No. 5 in the countdown, appear at a crossroads.
Damien hired Paredes, who won a CIF championship with Bishop Amat in 1992 and two more titles with JW North, in hopes of making the Spartans competitive in the ultra-tough Baseline league and having success in the postseason.
After back-to-back 4-6 campaigns his first two years, the Spartans showed signs of turning the corner last year, but still only finished 6-5 and lost in the first round of the Division 4 playoffs.
In fact, it has been more than a decade since the Spartans’ last playoff victory, and that’s not lost on Paredes or his players.
“I feel we’re getting closer, but how close?” Paredes asked. “We made a commitment to win a championship and everyone is on the same page in that regard.
“I’ve had some great teams that barely made it past the second round and have teams that I’ve gone into the season scratching my head about that went on deep playoff runs and won championships.
“You never know when it’s going to happen, but I like what we have, especially on offense.”
Damien’s biggest returner is Baseline all-league quarterback Warren Bryan, who threw for 2,825 yards and 25 touchdowns, and also ran for 453 yards and nine touchdowns.
And returning is one Bryan’s favorite targets, fellow senior Mikey McCauley, who caught 53 passes for 899 yards and six touchdowns, and tight end Kyle Thornton.
Damien also boasts a talented senior transfer from La Salle, Jalen Davis, who will play on both sides of the ball at corner and receiver. Davis also will spend some time in the backfield.
“I’m expecting a lot more this year,” Bryan said. “I’m more experienced, our offensive line is more experienced. We’ve just got to go out and get it done.”
One of the challenges for Damien is qualifying for the playoffs from the Baseline League.
Last year CIF changed the playoff structure, sending teams to playoff divisions based on past success, not the league you compete in.
Damien competes with Division 1 Rancho Cucamonga and Division 2 Chino Hills and Upland in the Baseline.
For Damien to qualify in Division 4 and earn one of the precious playoff spots, finishing third or better in the Baseline is crucial.
Not an easy task, but McCauley isn’t backing down from big predictions.
“I think a lot of people are underestimating us,” McCauley said. “In my opinion, we have one of the best quarterbacks in the country and we’ve been working really hard. We want to win league and CIF, that’s the goal.”
Bryan started to show his versatility midway through last season and expects that to continue.
Bryan, a strong student, is being recruited by Air Force, West Point, Navy, Old Dominion and others.
“I ran a lot more toward the end of last season and I’ll run a lot more,” Bryan said. “There’s a lot of zone read and more running, but there’s a lot of passing too.”
“Chemistry is starting to pick up,” Alba said. “We’re aggressive, super physical and playing fast.
“We only have two starters back, but it can be done. We’ve got guys, some crazy guys that can set the tone and carry it toward the playoffs.